WHEN THE LEAGUE CUP WAS KING

By Kelvin Barker
Dec 24th, 2007

After so many years in the doldrums, it strikes me that the League/Carling Cup has regained some of its lustre this year. With teams like Leicester City and Tranmere Rovers contesting recent finals, the competition was clearly in danger of becoming as important to some of the country’s top clubs as our old favourite of yesteryear – the Full Members Cup – was. However, a quarter-final line-up that this season comprised eight of England’s top teams (it’s the festive season, hence my generosity in including West Ham and Spurs in that last sentence) ensured that the final stages of the competition would be keenly contested, exciting affairs.

Although it pains me to say it, Arsenal’s triumph at Blackburn Rovers with a second-string side was hugely impressive, whilst both Spurs and Everton fielded full-strength sides in registering impressive away victories at Manchester City and West Ham United respectively. Avram Grant rested a couple of players for the clash with Liverpool, who rested a couple more than the Blues did (perhaps Rafael Benitez is concentrating on consolidating fourth spot in the Premier League this season), but there was no doubt that both sides were hungry for victory, and Benitez’s typically dishonest and ignorant view of Peter Crouch’s challenge that led to the spotty beanpole striker taking an early bath – assuming the Stamford Bridge changing rooms contain freak-sized baths – proved that the Spaniard still retained a certain amount of bitterness as a result of his club’s defeat. It also proved that he is fast catching up with Arsene Wenger in the odious, myopic hypocrite stakes.

So Chelsea go on to face in-form Everton in what should be a closely-fought encounter over two-legs, with the winners facing either Arsenal or Spurs in the final at Wembley. According to Chelsea TV, this is our 17th semi-final in the last 14 years, a magnificent statistic by anyone’s standards. However, despite the supporters generally preferring to see the Blues field a full-strength side in matches such as these, Avram Grant has already admitted that the Carling Cup is not particularly high on the club’s list of priorities. How times have changed, because there was a time in the not-so-distant past when a League Cup win would have meant everything to the club and its supporters. Had we won it – and we really should have – the celebrations would have lasted for years!

The 1984/85 season was a very special one for Chelsea supporters. With the exception of one season under Eddie McCreadie, the club had been in the doldrums for a decade before John Neal masterminded an unexpected promotion back to the top-flight in the previous campaign. As that 84/85 season approached, most outsiders expected the Blues to continue their yo-yoing exploits between the top two divisions, but Chelsea and their supporters knew better: this was a very special team indeed, one that would make its mark on Division One. They would eventually finish in sixth-place – a tremendous achievement, particularly bearing in mind that just two seasons earlier, the Blues had come perilously close to being relegated to Division Three.

The memorable 1984/85 League Cup campaign began with a visit from Millwall, and their notorious followers. Unlike now, the competition – at the time being played under the guise of the Milk Cup, as a result of a somewhat bizarre sponsorship by the Milk Marketing Board – was taken seriously by every club competing, and there was no possible consideration given to resting the likes of Kerry Dixon, David Speedie or Pat Nevin for the visit of George Graham’s Third Division side. In fact, the normally prolific Dixon had failed to find the net in the six games since his fierce volley on the opening day at Highbury had earned Chelsea a draw with Arsenal – provoking joyous scenes of celebration on the terraces that have perhaps never been repeated since. That sequence would all change in the clash with Millwall. After a tight start to the match, the deadlock was broken when former Chelsea centre-half Mickey Nutton – who once tried to pull a friend of mine (female, I should add), but apparently failed because he was more obsessed with himself than he was with her – toe-poked a Dixon through-ball ball past his own keeper. His confidence restored, Chelsea’s number nine scored the Blues’ second a minute later, and found the net again after the break as the home side eventually ran out 3-1 winners. Curiously, Dixon was later credited with the Nutton own-goal too, giving him yet another hat-trick in the royal blue shirt.

The second-leg of the Millwall tie was negotiated comfortably enough on the pitch, although the hostile atmosphere in and around the stadium was such that comfortable is probably not the right word to use to describe any element of that night’s events. A first-half Kerry Dixon header that deflected in off Millwall defender Dave Cusack, earned Chelsea a 1-1 draw at the Den, but there were running battles taking place on the streets of South London before and after the game, and Chelsea youngster Robert Isaac was stabbed by some Millwall yobs as he made his way to the ground. Unfortunately, Isaac had been unable to name the Millwall goalkeeper after being apprehended and questioned by these vermin, and the story goes that it was only the thickness of his leather jacket that saved his life. Thankfully, the youngster was able to make a swift recovery, and made his first-team debut at Watford later that season, although there are some amongst the squad of that time who feel that he never fully recovered from the traumas of that night. I recently discovered that Isaac still attends Chelsea games with his young son, which is good to hear.

With Millwall safely dispatched – although they would come back to haunt us in the FA Cup later that season – the Blues were drawn to play Walsall at Fellows Park in the 3rd round. As normal, thousands of Chelsea fans made their way to the Midlands for a match that was clearly a banana skin, Walsall having beaten Arsenal in the same competition a year earlier.

The kick-off at Fellows Park had to be delayed as a ‘taking’ of the home end was in process at the originally scheduled start time. The two sides returned to the pitch ten minutes later, the mayhem caused by a handful of naughty travelling fans having now abated, but the home end quickly found its collective voice again, as Walsall tore into Chelsea from the off. Little David Preece, a tenacious midfielder, who later found success with Luton Town, and who I believe passed away suddenly earlier this year, gave the Saddlers a first-half lead, which was pegged back by a Pat Nevin shot that took a wicked deflection past Steve Cherry in the Walsall goal. However, when the Saddlers’ lead was restored after the break by midfielder Craig Shakespeare (I wonder what his nickname was?), who scored the goal of his life with a long-range pile-driver past Eddie Niedzwiecki, it looked as though it was curtains for Chelsea, particularly as Kerry Dixon was being unusually profligate in front of goal, as he spurned a host of chances. Eventually a hero arose in the shape of Colin Lee, who surged forward from right-back to head bravely past Cherry at the far-post, taking a fearsome clump from the keeper in the process.

Back in the days before Stamford Bridge was re-developed on three sides, the north end of the ground, which housed the away fans – and often a fair smattering of excitable home fans too – was a sprawling terrace, which was accessed via a long trek up a steep, concrete ramp. As the visiting supporters arrived at the top of the ramp and conspicuously onto the terrace, they were regularly greeted with insults and derision from the three sides of the stadium. On the night of the replay with Walsall, the train carrying the bulk of the Saddlers’ travelling support was delayed and arrived late in London. The visitors’ terrace was close to empty as the game kicked off, and some fifteen minutes had been played before an excited band of visiting supporters suddenly arrived on the terrace, sparking a rousing chorus of ‘Do you know you’re three nil down?’ from the home fans. Goals from Kerry Dixon, David Speedie and young midfielder Keith Jones had already settled the tie, and the sight of the Walsall fans pointing at the scoreboard and putting their heads in their hands as the realisation dawned that their bad night had just got a whole lot worse, caused much amusement amongst the Chelsea following.

Second Division Manchester City were easily beaten 4-1 in the 4th round, Kerry Dixon’s hat-trick being overshadowed by Pat Nevin’s laughably bad, experimental penalty – taken without a run-up – that was so weakly hit that it barely reached the goal-line before City’s Alex Williams dropped casually to the ground and scooped it up. If he reads this, Pat will not be offended by my description of his spot-kick: he was fined by manager John Neal for failing to disguise his amusement at his howler!

That comfortable victory over City preceded the famous quarter-final trilogy with Sheffield Wednesday, which I wrote about in a previous piece. A 1-1 draw at the Bridge was followed 48 hours later by a 4-4 masterpiece at Hillsborough. Fittingly, an epic tie was settled in the very last minute of normal time in the second replay, when Mickey Thomas headed a Paul Canoville cross past Martin Hodge in the Sheffield Wednesday goal, to usher in a semi-final clash with struggling Sunderland. Surely this would be the year that Chelsea lifted their first significant silverware since the European Cup Winners Cup triumph over Real Madrid in 1971…

The first leg of the semi-final was played at Roker Park, on a freezing February night. Thousands of Chelsea supporters made the trip to Wearside in hope and anticipation of seeing their heroes end the night with one foot in the Wembley showpiece final, but for many of those supporters, the night had been ruined before a ball had even been kicked in anger.

Many younger supporters will find the following hard to comprehend, but those of a more ‘mature’ age will testify that there was no more better organised and vicious hooligan firm in the 1980s than certain police forces. That night, innocent Chelsea supporters arriving at Seaburn Station were herded together like sheep and escorted to the ground by a large number of blokes in shiny boots and silly hats, who routinely picked off individuals to attack. A middle-aged bloke walking directly in front of me tripped on the kerb and fell at the feet of a police officer, who immediately laid into him with fist and boot. As the escort approached the stadium, the police suddenly disappeared in a co-ordinated fashion, and the regular Chelsea supporters from the special trains – men, women and children – found themselves face-to-face with Sunderland’s main firm. That was the Sunderland Police Force for you.

The following day’s newspapers were full of reports about three local police officers being hospitalized after the game by Chelsea supporters, but they were typically less keen to print the stories of police brutality that were reported to them by innocent supporters. To his credit, Ken Bates did take up the baton on behalf of the victims, but his attempts to bring an action against the Sunderland Police Force were hampered by a lack of information regarding the officers involved. Naturally enough, the Sunderland Police Force denied any wrongdoing (despite hundreds of witnesses!) and, in a Liverpool stylee, even managed to paint themselves as victims by banning Chelsea supporters from attending the league match at Roker Park later that season.

On the pitch, Chelsea – who were already without the suspended (surely not!) David Speedie – suffered an early blow when big centre-half Joe McLaughlin fell on the icy surface and dislocated his elbow. His replacement, versatile youngster Dale Jasper, then conceded a soft penalty that allowed the Rokermen to take a first-half lead. With Mickey Thomas suffering from cracked ribs, and in agony every time he tried to run, and Colin Lee picking up a hamstring injury that meant he could do nothing other than move forward to play alongside Kerry Dixon in attack, and offer little more than nuisance value, the Blues were effectively down to nine men before the break. However, they were holding on bravely until Jasper got in a tangle with Sunderland striker Colin West – scorer of the first goal – and the referee again awarded the home side a dubious penalty. West scored again, scrambling the ball home after Eddie Niedzwiecki had pushed his spot-kick against the post, to leave Chelsea with a mountain to climb in the second-leg three weeks later.

We were all just beginning to thaw out from a charming winter’s journey back to London, on a specially selected train with no lights or windows, by the time the second-leg arrived. McLaughlin and Lee were still missing as a result of their injuries, but Thomas was fit to play, and Speedie was available again after his suspension. By the time the night had ended, he had picked up another one!

It was the fiery Scot whose shot on the turn after just six minutes sent an already vociferous home crowd into delirium. With thoughts of Wembley rekindled, the supporters turned the Bridge into a cauldron of passion and ferocity, and the players responded by going for the jugular, but were caught on the break – and with horrible, Gallas-like inevitability, it was the returning Clive Walker who scored the goal that silenced the majority within the stadium.

If the sight of the mercurial former Chelsea winger scoring that goal and celebrating elaborately wasn’t bad enough, Walker had a little encore up his sleeve. He had had games like this for Chelsea in the past – which were usually followed by a month of patting himself on the back and resting on his laurels – but when he scored a second after the break, and decided to include the Blues fans in the West Stand Benches in his celebration, he sparked a riot. As the game re-started, a burly Chelsea fan by the name of John Leftley bolted out of the West Stand and proceeded to chase the balding Walker around the pitch. Had he been followed by a procession of skimpily-dressed nurses, au-pairs and police women, it would have been a perfect re-make of a Benny Hill sketch. It eventually fell to Walker’s former team-mate, Joey Jones, to rescue old Flasher from a bashing, but by the time Leftley had been apprehended by the long arm of the law, mass disorder had broken out in front of the West Stand, as masses of Chelsea fans tried to storm the pitch and get the game abandoned.

A sour night ended in a 3-2 defeat for the Blues, Sunderland’s third goal coming courtesy of a Colin West header past Eddie Niedzwiecki, who was somewhat distracted by the sight of a Chelsea supporter sprinting through his six-yard box with three rozzers in hot pursuit as West converted. Before the end, Speedie reacted to a foul by Sunderland defender Shaun Elliott and was sent-off. Walker, his courage regained, taunted the Chelsea man as he made his way off the pitch, sparking another melee on the pitch; and a further one ensued after the game when Speedie tried to attack Walker in the player’s bar. This time, it was the gigantic Micky Droy who came to his former team-mate’s aid.

Somehow I doubt the forthcoming clashes with Everton will be quite as eventful as those infamous nights in early 1985 were. I also doubt whether there will be quite so many tears shed in South West London if the worst scenario should unfold, and we miss out on a place in the cup final. After all, cup finals come much easier to Chelsea these days; and times have changed dramatically at the Bridge since those steamy mid-80s days when the League Cup was king.

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